Edo Rebellions

Masterless samurai, or rōnin, whom the Tokugawa shogunate had deprived of their lords and livelihood, attempted to overthrow or at least disrupt the shogun’s government, but they were quickly subdued, marking the end of major resistance to Tokugawa rule for more than two hundred years.

Summary of Event

When the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, died in 1651, to be succeeded by his ten-year-old son Tokugawa Ietsuna Tokugawa Ietsuna , a determined group of masterless samurai, called rōnin, Rōnin[Ronin] attempted to change the government through violence. The roots of their rebellion stemmed from the Tokugawa shogunate’s aggressive reorganization of power in feudal Japan since 1603. The rebellious rōnin felt that these policies had left them at a severe disadvantage. They planned to use violence to change their position. [kw]Edo Rebellions (1651-1652)
[kw]Rebellions, Edo (1651-1652)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1651-1652: Edo Rebellions[1720]
Japan;1651-1652: Edo Rebellions[1720]
Edo rebellions (1651-1652)

By the middle of the seventeenth century, samurai were the exclusive warriors of Japan. Since 1588, they had been the only ones allowed to bear arms. For their livelihood, samurai depended on a master or lord, called a daimyo. A daimyo had to be granted rule over a territory, called a han, worth at least 10,000 koku. Feudal Japan measured arable land by the average yield of rice. One koku yielded about 5 bushels (175 liters) of rice, and 10 koku corresponded to 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land. Out of the revenue from his domain, a daimyo would engage the services of samurai. In return for their sustenance, the samurai swore absolute loyalty to their daimyo. Should the daimyo lose his land and thus his lordship, his samurai became rōnin, without obvious means of support. Japan’s feudal system forbade samurai to work or switch social class to become an artisan or merchant. Thus, almost the only legitimate hope for a rōnin lay in finding another daimyo.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu had assumed the title of shogun from the emperor in 1603, founding the Tokugawa shogunate Tokugawa shogunate , he had quickly used his position to consolidate his powers, and his next two successors followed suit. According to the Japanese feudal system, the shogun ruled the nation in the name of the emperor, but under the Tokugawa, the emperor was a mere figurehead. The shogunate had all the real power, including the crucial right to allocate land to the daimyos of Japan. Thus, each of the roughly 270 daimyos governed his domain, conditional upon the shogun’s approval.

To reward their own loyal followers and to punish their opponents, the first three Tokugawa shoguns made intensive use of this right to determine holder and size of daimyo domains. From 1600 to 1650, they created 172 new daimyos, enlarged the hans of 206 others, and transferred 281 daimyos from one domain to another. However, 213 daimyos lost their hans or saw them significantly reduced. It was from the ranks of their former samurai, now rōnin, that the rebels recruited their followers.

One of these rōnin was Marubashi Chūya Marubashi Chūya . To survive, he had founded a martial arts school in Edo, the capital of the shogunate. Since samurai were expected to be moral leaders, teaching was one of the few occupations not considered work in the strict sense and therefore allowed to samurai. Since he was famous for his skill with the lance, Marubashi’s school quickly attracted both rōnin and samurai, eager to improve their fighting skills. Soon, talks of a plot to change the behavior of the shogunate toward the rōnin arose

When Marubashi joined forces with Yui Shōsetsu Yui Shōsetsu , the plans of the rebels became more concrete. Yui had studied military arts and founded his own school in Edo, where he taught military science. His fame attracted even daimyos and lower-ranking senior Tokugawa vassals, yet he also attracted many rōnin, who became his ardent followers. In turn, Yui looked for ways to help these desperate men who began to crowd the shogunal capital in search of opportunities to support themselves. One solution Yui proposed to them was to become samurai for daimyo Tokugawa Yorinobu of Kii Province (modern Wakayama Province), in the heart of feudal Japan. The rōnin clung to this hope, but it failed to materialize

The death of Tokugawa Iemitsu in the summer of 1651 inspired Yui and Marubashi to form a concrete plan for a rebellion. Their goals differed, however. Both leaders agreed to create a massive disruption of public life to focus attention on the sorrows of the rōnin. Whether both Yui and Marubashi agreed on overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate has remained in dispute. However, the massive scale of their plans shows that they planned a major rebellion. In Japan, their endeavor is referred to as the Keian incident Keian incident (1651) , since it took place in the last Keian year of the traditional calendar.

For drastic effect, the two leaders planned to blow up the arsenal of the shogun’s forces. This became a possibility after the traitorous deputy commander of the facility, Kawara Jūrōbei Kawara Jūrōbei , secretly allied himself with the rebels. The conspirators also planned to burn the city of Edo, assassinate senior ministers, and take over Edo Castle, where the ten-year-old boy shogun Ietsuna resided with his advisers

While rebel operations in Edo were left to Marubashi, Yui left for the town of Sumpu (modern Shizuoka City) to the west, between Edo and Kyōto. He took with him ten devoted rōnin. Simultaneous with Marubashi’s attack on Edo, Yui planned to set fire to Sumpu. He envisioned using the chaos caused by the conflagration to seize the sacred shogun shrine at Kunōzan, outside the city gates

Most likely as a result of Marubashi talking about the plans of the rebels in increasingly boastful terms, government informers learned of the planned rebellion. They brought the information to senior councillor Matsudaira Nobutsuna Matsudaira Nobutsuna . Matsudaira had been a loyal adviser to the late shogun. He carried the nickname Chie Izu (Clever Izu), a play on his noble title of Izu no Kami. Clever Izu acted immediately and decisively, bringing the Keian incident to a quick end. He arrested Marubashi and thirty-three of his fellow plotters, including some of their male family members, interrogated them, and had them executed on September 24, 1651.

Learning of the arrest and execution of the Edo rebels, Yui Shōsetsu committed suicide in Sumpu. To add controversy to the issue of the true goals of the rebels, Yui left behind a suicide note. In it, he stated that the goal of his rebellion had not been the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate. Instead, his intention had merely been to call attention to the dire position of the rōnin. Whether this was true has been the subject of sustained scholarly debate.

Indicative of the persistent dissatisfaction of the rōnin, Marubashi had to suppress a second rebellion, called the Jōō incident Jōō incident (1652)[Joo incident (1652)] , in 1652. Again, it was bands of dissatisfied rōnin, as well as outlaw soldiers called hatamoto yakko (renegade Tokugawa bannermen) and machi yakko who caused the unrest. Marubashi put the rebels to death, and revolts against Tokugawa rule ceased to recur


The failure of the rebels to disturb Tokugawa rule during the prematurely discovered Keian incident and the Jōō incident led to a full consolidation of the shogunate. There would be no more major armed challenges to the Tokugawa shoguns for more than two hundred years, and Japan enjoyed in a very long period of domestic peace

The claim of Yui Shōsetsu’s suicide note that the rebellion was merely intended to launch serious consideration of the dire situation of the rōnin seemed to have some effect on shogunate policy. While the first three Tokugawa shoguns had taken away from disfavored daimyos an average of 3.6 million koku, or land of 900,000 acres (360,000 hectares), in each of their reigns, that figure dropped for the fourth shogun. Under Tokugawa Ietsuna, from 1651 to 1680, only 728,000 koku, equivalent to 182,000 acres (74,000 hectares), were taken from some daimyos and reassigned to others. The figures crept up again under the next shogun, reaching 1.7 million koku, or 425,000 acres (172 hectares). Thus, while the Edo rebellions failed to disrupt Tokugawa authority, they were indirectly successful in causing a moderation and stabilization of government policy. As fewer daimyos were dispossessed, fewer rōnin roamed the capital as a potential source of unrest

The leaders of the Keian incident, Yui Shōsetsu and Marubashi Chūya, soon became popular heroes. As early as the late seventeenth century, historical fiction about them began to be written, and they were not cast as villains. This trend continued in the 1700’. Many Kabuki plays were written about them as well during the reign of later Tokugawa shoguns. It appears that the Tokugawa rulers were more tolerant of rebels on the stage and in fiction than in real life

Further Reading

  • De Benneville, James. The Haunted House: More Samurai Tales of the Tokugawa. 2d ed. London: Kegan Paul, 2001. Historical fiction based on contemporary Japanese chronicles of the era that also features some of the samurai rebels as characters. Illustrated.
  • Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Academic study of the development of samurai culture. Chapter 4 deals with samurai in the Tokugawa shogunate and sheds light on the forces leading to the rebellions. Illustrated, notes, index.
  • Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000. Begins with a comprehensive look at the Tokugawa shogunate that outlines how the Tokugawa state was set up and successfully enforced its powers against its enemies. Illustrated, notes, index, bibliography.
  • McClain, James. Japan: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 2001. First three chapters deal with the Tokugawa period, provide an excellent overview of the politics of the shogunate that led to the rebellions, and explain why the shogunate remained successful. Illustrated, maps, index.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai: The World of the Warrior. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003. Richly illustrated book that brings to life people like the rōnin rebels.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Tokugawa Ieyasu; Tokugawa Tsunayoshi; Yui Shōsetsu. Edo rebellions (1651-1652)